“I like men who have a future and women who have a past.”
--Oscar Wilde


Chapter Forty Nine - Spider-web

In the end, Huang Ming settled with a just a modest basket of fruits which he had bought while on the way to the Lichun.


“All that time spent browsing wasted and in the end you only have this to show,” Sunli said as she followed him.


“I wouldn’t call it a waste,” Huang Ming said, recalling the various materials and tools as well as the rusted music box he had asked to be delivered to his home. “Besides, an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” he continued nonchalantly.


“What do people eat if there aren’t any apples available?” Sunli scoffed.


“It’s just a folk saying. Fruits are necessary component in a healthy diet. Ask any sailor,” Huang Ming said.


Sunli kept quiet, she couldn’t really refute what he said. Even in the army, their rations in long marches included dried fruits.


As they approached the lively Lichun, Huang Ming turned to the guardswoman.


“Do you plan to keep following me?” he asked.


Sunli bared her teeth in a snarl. “I’m not a flowery maiden. I’m in the army, I know things. Don’t think you can get rid of me with such a simple ruse.”


“I did not ask about your sensitivity, I am thinking about you being a woman seen going into the Lichun,” Huang Ming said mildly.


“If I can become ashamed by entering a brothel, how could I ever maintain my composure on the battlefield?” Sunli asserted.


“People can talk. You will be seen as a loose woman. You might ruin your prospects of a marriage,” the young master reminded her.


“How is it any more detrimental than being a female soldier with blood on her hands?” she demanded.


Huang Ming smiled, Sunli’s attitude was very modern and akin to bodyguard services that followed their VIP charges into unsavoury situations. “Well said. A professional should always focus on the job.”


Sunli nodded curtly in agreement. Still, she was a little startled by the lively exterior of the Lichun. The way the flirtatious ladies openly court potential customers was an eye-opener for her. She had seen such behaviour around the army barracks, but it was a different sensation here. The quality of the women here was of a higher grade as well, and their winsome bodies were scantily clad with fine silk and wool that tempted those who saw them.


Huang Ming waved casually to the fawning ladies on the balcony and stepped into the Lichun restaurant. The moment his feet stepped into its domain, the gaudy Madam Xu appeared.


“Young Master Huang! How nice to see you again!” she exclaimed happily as her heavily made-up face broke into a large smile.


“Don’t just show up like that! You could give someone a heart attack!” Huang Ming yelped. He wasn’t exaggerating, the sudden appearance of Madam Xu had really startled him.


“Oh, you!” Madam Xu laughed and batted a hand at him playfully. “What brings you here today?”


“I’m looking for one of your guests, his name is Quan Lu.”


Madam Xu’s face became troubled. “Oh! I don’t know if he’s in…”


“Well, lead me to his lodgings and we’ll find out,” Huang Ming said brightly.


But the fat woman wagged a finger in disapproval. “That is not the way, we value the privacy of our guests. I can hardly bring you to his room without his say so. Wait here while I check whether if he is in.”


“But all I want is just to hand him these fruits and invite him for dinner. You can just take a message for me…” Huang Ming began.


Madam Xu ignored him. “I’ll be back soon! Girls, serve some tea!” she ordered and quickly left. Dumbfounded, Huang Ming and Sunli followed the serving girls to a side room to wait.


As soon as the door of the room was closed, Madam Xu broke into a run. She was deceptively fast despite her size, but she was soon panting and her body became drenched in sweat. Reaching her destination, she took several deep breaths to calm herself down and wiped her brow with a silk handkerchief. She could hear light laughter and muffled music from the door beyond her. She steeled herself to knock it; knowing that her interruption could very well destroy all the preparation she and her mistress had taken.


The music came to a halt, and there were a few disgruntled sounds. Her interruption had incurred the displeasure of the persons within.


“Enter!”


A soft, melodious voice called out.


Madam Xu opened the door. It was a large, spacious room, with a slightly raised platform at one end. Sheets of silk and muslin draped from the ceiling, silhouetting the person on it. The tantalizing figure of a woman was obscured, but one could see that she was seated on the raised platform with a zither before her. The woman was positioned as if she was a noble of sorts. Several finely dressed men were seated before her, each with their individual table and waited upon by the best serving girls of the establishment. Obviously they were enjoying the zither playing of the woman on the platform before Madam Xu’s interruption.


“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” one of the men demanded. It was none other than Official Shen He. The other man with him was Nangong Xie, while a third man sat at the seat of honour. Their positioning meant that even the government official was deferential to the latter.


Madam Xu began to perspire again, but this time it was cold sweat that lined her back.


“Patience, Official Shen He,” the woman behind the thin curtain said gently. One could almost hear the smile behind the placating voice. “Madam Xu, is there something urgent?” she asked.


“My lady, there is a guest looking for your cousin,” Madam Xu answered as she bowed lowly.


“Ah,” the lady breathed audibly, causing the men in the room to wonder who had arrived to have affected the esteemed Lady Qiong Ying so.


“I did not know that the Lady Qiong Ying had a cousin here, why didn’t he join us?” Nangong Xie asked.


Behind the curtain, Qiong Ying smiled. She was grateful for the curtain, because the twinkle in her brilliant green eyes would have exposed her mirth and thus invite suspicion. “My cousin is indisposed,” she said. “But he had left word to me that I should meet his friend.”


“Oh? He must be someone great indeed to have been personally recommended by your cousin,” Nangong Xie said flatteringly. The Handsome Scholar himself was intoxicated by Qiong Ying’s veiled beauty, but he had to rein himself while in the company of those who were of a higher station.


Qiong Ying’s smile became broader. She was aware of the enmity between The Handsome Scholar and Huang Ming, and she was eager to see his reaction once the two men came face to face in her presence. The entire situation was not ideal, but she was always a risk-taker.


She drooped her head slightly and motioned as if looking bashfully at the man seated in the position of honour. “If Lord Fang La does not mind, can my cousin’s friend join us here for a little while? My cousin had extolled about his friend’s wit and knowledge to me.”


Even from behind the curtain, her femininity could be felt. The thin layer of silk and muslin that hid her could not prevent the charm and grace in her movement and voice from affecting the men. Indeed, the obscuring effect of the curtain made her hidden figure all the more tantalizing, an ephemeral effect that blurred the sight but heightened the other senses.


The man known as Lord Fang La nodded regally, and Qiong Ying bade Madam Xu to bring Huang Ming over.


Hidden behind the curtain, Qiong Ying smiled as her heart raced. If Huang Ming should trip over this hurdle, then it would be obvious that he was not suited for the future she had envisioned. She had thought the Great General Huang Zheng’s wastrel son was her last resort in achieving her goal, but fate had dealt her another card by having this Lord Fang appearing before her.


It might seem callous of her, but Qiong Ying above all had her own objective. She was intrigued by Huang Ming recently, but more important matters must take precedence over those in her heart.


Despite these cold reminders ringing through her head, Lady Qiong Ying could not help but have expectations of Huang Ming. How would he cope with this unexpected situation?
 

Torn between heart and mind,
Hoping that he escapes this bind.​